In my last Life In The Big City installment, I was asked about my random encounter tables. In that article I describe one way in which I use random encounter tables, which is that PCs going out into the city to gather information or perform other tasks can provoke them.
I am a believer in random encounters. Some people aren’t, and only run pre-selected, or “scripted,” encounters. While that’s fine, I have learned over some 20 years of gaming to “trust the dice”. As a DM, you can get predictable. Much of the time, the things that players really get into are things you didn’t intend. That’s worth a brief aside. So NEXT time, I’ll get to random encounters. This time, I’m going to talk about the philosophy of mixing simulation with player interest.
Cue Off Your Players
One of the best ways to make sure your players enjoy your game is to cue off the things they like. Throw stuff out there and see what sticks. Sometimes, players will be proactive enough to let you know what they like; you as the DM can also do some things to elicit that feedback. But analysis fades before experience.
Here’s an example. I was running a low level game where the PCs were wandering around some loosely settled farmland. It started to rain (I also use random weather generation, because if I don’t I frankly forget to make the weather vary, unless it’s important to the plot, in which case players start to see weather as a sign of an impending screwjob…) and the PCs took cover in a nearby abandoned barn. “Is there anywhere we can get out of the rain?” “Uh, there’s an abandoned barn about a half mile off…” Being PCs, they decided to search it. Rather than say “Come on man, I’m just making this up as I go along,” I tossed out some details. “There’s moldy hay, the ladder up to the loft is ruined, there’s a frayed rope hanging over the center beam…” The busybodies start rooting through the hay, looking for stuff. Thinking “You can just say we wait till the rain stops and get back underway, you know,” I said “You find an… old human skull under the hay.” Just to make something up besides “dirt, you goons!”
Well you would have thought I tasered them all in the nutsacks. An episode of CSI: Greyhawk broke out as they frantically tried to unravel the mystery. They determined the person must have hung themselves over the center beam. One PC clambered up and went all over the ruined hayloft, finding an old rusty dagger stuck into the frame of the hayloft door. I looked around at all of them and realized they were really, really into this. Slightly creeped out, highly engaged.
When something comes up in your game, you can pretty easily determine what your reaction as a DM should be.
1. Players not interested- worthless color, forget it.
2. Players moderately interested – build it up into a one off.
3. Players fascinated – it’s totally related to the overall plot, or will be once you figure out how yourself.
In this case, I led this into a mini-horror adventure I largely made up off the cuff that I ended up making central to the overall core plot of the campaign.
Random encounters, random NPCs, etc. all work this way. If – and this is a big if – you are making your game world somewhat realistic. If PCs believe that there may be a legitimate reason behind the way things are, then they’ll react to it as if it were, and look for the “why” behind events. If the “why” is that the dice or the story say so, they lose interest. Of course, it could be that the dice or story did say so, but your job as a DM is to build out behind that.
There’s a random encounter of an owlbear. Maybe the PCs kill it and move on without a second thought. Maybe they take an interest instead. “Hey, we’re mighty close to that village for a roving owlbear to be attacking people, maybe we should go check in with them.” Maybe it’s the second owlbear encounter and they go nuts. “The evil wizard must be creating them to destabilize the region! I take favored enemy: magical beasts with my next ranger level!” That doesn’t have to be the actual explanation, but it is a cue to you to make the owlbears more than just two random rolls in a row.
Same deal with NPCs, or locations. I like random NPC generators, for sure. But the same principle holds if things aren’t randomly generated.
In my current campaign, the PCs are on the mean streets of Riddleport. There are some NPCs the Paizo Second Darkness Adventure Path I’m using say are important, others it just mentions, and some that I’ve made up or brought in from other random adventures I’m weaving in. There’s some that they have really taken to, and others that have been inflicted on them against their will. You can’t turn every beggar they take an interest in into a ninja in the employ of the BBEG (Big Bad Evil Guy), but you can definitely add some depth to them and consider how they might play a part on the larger story.
Rumors are great for this too. I give out bunches of them, some false. The PCs fell in love with a false one – that there was treasure hidden below a local homeless shelter. They went all over that place with a fine toothed comb and flushed out and killed the criminal gang hiding there before I had actually planned on incorporating them. Though I’m not going to put in a hidden treasure just because they went there, the PCs themselves started brainstorming. “That’s a good rumor to plant if you want some rubes to go wipe out a rival gang!” Hmmm… Yes. Yes, it is.